Looking to history to rediscover the town centre’s beating heart

The Market House, Butcher's Row, Croydon, c1800. What provision has been made to create a civic "town centre" in the 21st century regeneration plans?

The Market House, Butcher’s Row, Croydon, c1800. What provision has been made to create a civic “town centre” in the 21st century regeneration plans?

This is Croydon’s original Town Hall, what was once the beating heart of the old town’s business and trading centre.

The Market House, which is thought to have been built at least by 1609, stood near the corner of the modern day High Street and what was then called – with good reason – Butcher’s Row, and which is now known as Surrey Street.

Built by a local grocer, in common with the practice in many rural market towns around the country, the Market House was used for the sale of butter and poultry, while sheep and cattle which had been herded up from Surrey and Kent were slaughtered for their meat and hides on the market street nearby.

The upper floor of the Market House is thought to have been used for meetings of the town’s leaders, but the building was superseded by a new Town Hall in 1809.

The current Croydon Town Hall, the town’s third, was built in 1895, following more than a decade of committees and planning. Sound familiar?

Croydon Old Palace, c1800, taken from the Rev DH Garrow's History and Antiquities of Croydon published in 1818

Croydon Old Palace, c1800, taken from the Rev DH Garrow’s History and Antiquities of Croydon published in 1818. The Parish CHurch, now Minister, to the left still stands, and some part of this historic building is still in use as the private girls’ school

But as Croydon creeps, glacially slowly, towards its latest town centre reconfiguration courtesy of Hammersfield, with the local council effectively standing on the sidelines cheerleading for anything which may be presented by the developers, some are beginning to ask why Croydon ought not have a suitable building or structure at its centre.

The Croydon town centre developed in the 1960s has often been ridiculed for being soul-less and without character. Indeed, that development, with its shopping mall and twin urban motorways, ripped out the historic character of the town. Fifty years on, there seems to be a real risk that those mistakes could be repeated for the 21st century.

Writing on the Historic Croydon Facebook group, Andrew Kennedy said of the Market House, “This building would have been the centre of Croydon’s market activity and if it had been maintained to this present day would probably mark the centre of town, like market halls and market crosses do in many other historic towns.

“Instead we have nothing.

“Recently we have come to think of the intersection of George Street, Crown Hill and North End as the centre, but there is no real centre now and there is nothing substantial proposed. Some people think it will become the shopping centre, Westfield, but will they have a sculpture or cross or fountain of sufficient stature to mark this?

“I think that the new proposed Civic Space outside the present Town Hall has the opportunity but the developer’s plans are a little underwhelming at the moment and anyway the land is private and we will be totally in the hands of the developer and how generous and visionary they might be.

“One answer is for the council to buy back just sufficient land for a decent town square and just as important make sure that the buildings surrounding it are visionary, epic and iconic. Else it will all be bland and mediocre.”

For more posts about the history of Croydon, visit the Facebook group here.

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2 Responses to Looking to history to rediscover the town centre’s beating heart

  1. Lessons not learned are repeated. What’s the lesson here? Value what you have now.

  2. croydonres says:

    I wonder what the average Croydon person-in-the-street thought when they decided to demolish the original town hall, and build a new one, then – the current one – in Katherine Street?
    Was there huge popular “Civic Pride” in the new structure, or a shout out –“what a waste of money!”– or even a conservationist outcry — “don’t knock down our Architectural heritage!” from those at the time. Or a supreme lack of interest?

    I can’t help thinking that Croydon’s centre is far less animated, now that traffic doesn’t go along the High Street. Rather than a new civic square, which might prove to be a dead, sunless and windswept space, I would like to suggest that cars and buses be allowed back into the main drag– subject to one proviso- they would have to be electric powered. Only registered vehicles would be permitted through barriers at both ends. oops!–and limited to 10mph. This would go some way to re-introducing a bit of activity, of the kind seen not only in Victorian photos but in street photos of the 60’s. A fleet of Croydon Corporation trolley buses (painted red or blue to reflect the political hue of the council) could ply along the street, to transport shoppers from South Croydon Garage to Broad Green. Yes–with conductors who are look-alikes for Kate Moss, Roy Hudd, Sue Perkins, and other famous sons and daughters of the town, like er–Kate Moss.

    Croydon’s busy-ness lasted probably up to the mid 70’s. There seemed to be lots of jobs around then in the public and private sector office blocks. Many of the Insurance companies have moved to places like Bournemouth. Nestle decided to go down the A 23 to Crawley ! Let’s hope that current efforts to regenerate employment , as well as introduce housing in the town, work, to bring renewed bustle and business to the centre.

    As to a new focal building, it’s sad that Croydon, the Barcelona of South London, lacks a home-grown equivalent of Gaudi to give a unique style to the town. Or, even better, a Salvador Dali — but with an input by MC Escher. I would love to see a surrealist structure with a couple of melting watches (fake Rolex of course, this being Croydon) and a never-ending staircase located at the junction of Surrey Street and Crown Hill, with a Free-trade cafe and organic veg. and free-range meat market hall underneath. Croydon-brewed real ales and Surrey Champagne, would cascade in a never-ending fountain from the staircase.

    Yet no-one drinking from it would get badly drunk or become addicted to drinking.

    Not forgetting a multi-religion “Faith Hub” with many prayer halls- rather like a 1/3 scale version of the Sagrada Familia with towers and a minaret, to reflect all the main Croydon faiths, to ensure that God is not excluded by Mammon.

    Yes, Starbucks will also be there, in this Croydon of the future. (not my choice, but there will be a special Croydon sales tax on all cappucinos sold, by these corporation tax-minimising multi-nationals)

    And, below the structure, the most beautiful fully wheelchair-accessible public loos in the world, with uniformed commissionaire / attendants, highly-polished brass taps and pipes, aspidistras in antique Victorian floral w.c. pans, and wall- mosaics depicting the Davis Theatre, Surrey Street Market, and past Town Halls. The sanitary needs and styles of all Croydonians of all faith groups and none, will of course be catered for, in the gender-spectrum sensitive provision. There will even be toilet paper, soap, hot running water and fresh towels. Ex-Croydon night-club door persons will be on hand to ensure that gentlemen lift the seat before spending a penny, and that all patrons kindly wash their hands prior to exiting the establishment.

    If that doesn’t get the crowds back to Croydon, nothing will.

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